Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Eating (Food)

Earlier today, I realized that I was confused about something. (And then mentally told myself: "I realize that I am confused.", so I didn't immediately forget about it, and focus on something unimportant, like the uncountability of the Cantor Set.) My train of thought went something like:

Man, I can't wait to get lunch.

It's a shame that I can't just eat at Annenberg [freshman dining hall]. But at least the food is better in Eliot [my upperclassman house].

Actually, when I get home, what if I just take a nap instead? I'm not exceptionally hungry, and dining hall food is only mediocre at best.

But food is important! More important to you than any other hedonic pleasure, if your blog posts are to be believed...

So why don't you buy better food?

I realize that I am confused.

A fuller explanation requires a little background. I spent a significant amount of time this summer exploring ways to make my life more efficient. Polyphasic sleep was one of those, but even outside of that, my summer roommate and I spent a great deal of time discussing values, terminal goals, and effective operating modes. (For an example of what I mean, he's written up an introspective post on his life goals here. Maybe someday I'll have the free time to do something similar.)

One of the conversations we had was about food, and in particular, Soylent. For those of you not in-the-know on everything crazy, "Soylent" (not to be confused with Soylent Green) is one man's homemade attempt to create an all-in-one foodstuff-drink that includes everything the body needs -- and nothing that the soul desires. (I've already linked back to Eating Animals II, haven't I?) Somewhere in the debate between time-efficiency, health risk, and food in general, I claimed the following: "I'd rather live on subsistence income with food than a programmer's salary with Soylent."

And I think I stand by that. To clarify and quantize, given the choice between:

  1. Working for $200K a year and donating $170K of it to charity; eating food

  2. Working for $200K a year and spending it on myself; drinking Soylent

In a purely hedonic sense, I expect I'd prefer (1) to (2). If this doesn't shock you, then you need to go back and read those numbers again, because this is a ridiculous claim. But I'm not going to argue my hedonic preferences here and now. Rather, I think it's important to think about why, if food is so important to me, I put up with an awful-quality college meal plan.

As best I can tell, it's because the difference between 'calories' and 'bad food' is enormously greater (in importance to me, personally) than the difference between 'bad food' and 'good food'. 'Food' is on the one hand a source of certain physical hedonic pleasures, and on the other the center of a tremendously complex social nexus tied up in genetics, culture, identity, and ritual. And, despite Soylent-inventor Rob Rhinehart's assertions to the contrary, I believe that while many meals are "forgotten", none are dispensable. Dining-hall conversations are often referenced as "more important than lectures" in the grand scheme of the 'college experience', and late-night fast-food is one of the major reasons I have such a positive view of the problem-setting culture of my friend group here.

aside: I've found that vegetarianism doesn't at all impede my ability to socialize over food. When Harvard caters cookouts, the veggie burgers are provided on a tray next to the meat-burgers.

And when looking for food in Harvard Square, I've found that there are always veggie burritos, veggie burgers, falafel wraps, several styles of meatless pizza that not only provide a vegetarian the option of eating alongside meat-eating friends, but allow them to be eating essentially the same thing. The latter is pretty crucially important: say what you will, having a salad when everyone else has got a burger is a sub-optimal experience.

Anyway. If you told me tomorrow that everyone I knew was going to have an IV pump installed in their arm that would give them an extra two hours in the day by freeing them from the requirement to manually input food into their digestive system, I'd be sad. To be honest, I'd probably jump on the bandwagon, too, but not because I want to eliminate the time I spend eating meals, but rather because the by far most enjoyable part of the activity would be gone from it already.

So I'm willing to give up two hours (2hr/day*7day/week*$30/hr = $420/week) a day to consume bad food, but wouldn't pay 20% more to dine on food that's 200% 'better'.

Absolutely no offense is meant to the Harvard University Dining Services staff. It's a point of fact that their food is not restaurant-quality, but they've got a practically-impossible job, and are absurdly committed to making the lives of undergraduates better in whatever way they can.

I mean, come on; they've been known to bicycle to work from Boston when the city was literally on lockdown, and produce charmingly fabulous dinners for special occasions. And in particular, to the HUDS worker to put out a bottle of honey by the tea-water spigot this morning -- you're an absolute lifesaver, thank you.